James Wood's How Fiction Works. 

Reading between the lines.
July 22 2008 7:38 AM

The Care and Feeding of Fiction

James Wood's critical manifesto is firm, yet flexible.

How Fiction Works by James Wood

The Englishman James Wood, recently named The New Yorker's chief book reviewer, by now comes to us wreathed in a Homeric epithet. The epithet varies from venue to venue but always yokes together two presumably opposed attributes: polished manners and deadly ferocity. Wood is a "courtly eviscerator," says n+1. He is an "elegant assassin," says the Boston Globe.

The charge is not false, exactly—Wood has written many harsh things about many contemporary novels—but in How Fiction Works he turns it upside down, revealing decorum and moral intensity to be the roots of a beautifully leafed-out aesthetic philosophy. Wood, you might say, has a deep ethical commitment to literary tact. He believes that there is a right way and a wrong way for novelists to comport themselves. Under the guise of a reader's handbook, an introduction to the primary elements of fictional narrative (voice, detail, character, dialogue), Wood has written a manifesto—one with the singular feel of an etiquette manual, though none of its fussiness.

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Here are some of Wood's do's and don'ts. Writers should treat their fictions with the deference due something real; or, if they don't, they should show that they understand the consequences of not doing so. They should grant characters their measure of "metaphysical presence," not move them around like pawns in "metafictional games." Authors should be "gravely affirmative" before they give themselves license to be "gravely skeptical." They should "inhabit" their stories, rather than play with them. Details should be sprinkled with a light but deliberate touch (tact, of course, comes from the Latin for touch) and imbued with the weight of what the medieval theologian Duns Scotus called "thisness": "By thisness," Wood writes, "I mean any detail that draws abstraction toward itself and seems to kill that abstraction with a puff of palpability."

Don't mistake this advice for a codification of "good form," at least not in the prep-school sense of the word. Wood grounds his critical dicta in an unusually, well, tactile response to reality, the kind he thinks should flourish in works of art. It follows that he has a taste for realism, the stuff of Tolstoy and Flaubert and George Eliot and Saul Bellow, that old-time magisterial magic routinely dismissed as tired convention and bourgeois construct. "The realistic novel" is "politically and philosophically dubious," not to mention "dull" and in need of "a kick in the ass," Wood quotes novelist Rick Moody as saying. Wood is here to defend "the realistic novel"—not against Moody, a writer too easily unstuffed to make a good straw man, but against the more serious thinkers Moody channels: the Formalists and Structuralists and Poststructuralists for whom the "real," in literature, can be reduced to linguistic artifice and for whom reading astutely entails seeing through Realism's codes.

How Fiction Works is also, although more tacitly, a defense of Wood's most controversial position as a critic. Eight years ago, in an essay in the New Republic, Wood dismayed several of the best-known authors in the English-speaking world—including Don Delillo, Salman Rushdie, Tom Wolfe, Jonathan Franzen, and Zadie Smith, the author under review—by kneading their novels together into a single dispiriting lump he titled "hysterical realism." By that he meant: big, antic, obsessively detailed, thickly plotted, and, above all, ambitious. Indeed, he said, writing an overblown novel had become a requisite rite of literary ambition. Wood's specific complaint about "hysterical realism" was that it had reach but lacked touch; it failed to bring its world to life. Its characters have, he wrote in his essay, "a showy liveliness, a theatricality," but the liveliness "hangs off them like jewelry."

Once you've read How Fiction Works, you'll see how precisely Wood's objection turns on that word, liveliness. The relationship of literature to life is his main concern. Is great fiction mimetic, that is, does it imitate life? Or does it have a reality all its own, some other, parallel, nonintersecting life, as the great critic Roland Barthes maintained? " 'What takes place'  in the narrative is, from the referential (reality) point of view, literally nothing," Barthes wrote in a 1966 essay; " 'what happens' is language alone, the adventure of language, the unceasing celebration of its fiction.' " Do fictional beings have ontological existence, and if so, how much? Should they be lifelike, alive, neither, or both? As you've already guessed, Wood believes fiction partakes of the real and has a life of its own, and he coins a term, lifeness, to denote the quality of having those qualities. By lifeness, he means, he says, "life brought to life by the highest artistry."

"The highest artistry" may seem like an absurdly grand hook for Wood to hang his critical principles on, but he earns the phrase with a book that sets out to explain clearly what he means by it. His list of approved techniques is both obvious and idiosyncratic, and each item on it has in common with the others a requirement of unsparing attentiveness to the "thisness" of a fictional world. There is, for instance, the telling visual detail, which Wood agrees has grown dull through mindless overuse. At its best, however—not least in the work of the founding hyperrealist, Flaubert—the realistic detail embodies an original and instructive act of noticing, an "exact palpability," such as Marlow's shoes full of a speared man's blood in Heart ofDarkness or a baby's arms being so fat they seem tied up with string, in Anna Karenina.

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